The great castrato Farinelli, one of the most famous opera singers of all time, was born Carlo Broschi, in 1705, in present day Apulia. His family was aristocratic and well to do. Further, they were largely a family of musicians. Farinelli's social class and "connectedness," therefore, were an important factor in a great career. The social and economic realities of the day did not at all favor those of the lower strata of society as far as any kind of musical career was concerned, or for that matter any kind of career at all. Society at that time was still largely medieval in its structure, which is to say a tri-part division into clergy, aristocracy, and laborers. While exceptional talent did make it possible for some promising artists to rise above their birth, it was rare. This is important to bear in mind in Farinelli's case, because the whole vexed issue of castration has cast something like a pall of titillation, awe, and, to be blunt, just plain silliness over the biography of this great artist, whose success owed essentially to fortuitous birth, remarkable talent, early inspiration from a musically gifted family, and social and political connections. There were many castrati; most had only slight talent. In discussing such singers, one needs always to be guided by a sense of dignity and decorum, and to hold rigorously to the sensible and the obvious.
Little Carlo, who was precocious, demonstrated real talent for singing at a young age, and was introduced in 1715, when he was a mere 10 years of age, to the famous teacher Nicola Porpora, who had important connections in Naples. The major turning point in young Carlo's life came unexpectedly in 1717 when his father Salvatore Broschi died unexpectedly. Largely because of potential economic problems for the family— and probably great talent on the part of Carlo— his family (likely his older brother Riccardo) made the essential decision that was to determine 12-year old Carlo's future life. While it might be tempting to want to blame his family for so drastic a decision, one needs also to remember that it made possible his extraordinary achievement, which is recognized even today, over 200 years later.
Progress was rapid, as the talent was great, and the young singer made his debut three years later, at age 15. Success was near instantaneous, and the boy undertook the portrayal of many roles, often female. To come to a quick biographical close, Carlo Broschi rose to became the most famous singer in Europe, and was written about, painted, adulated and generally admired by a huge audience. He became wealthy. It was a stunning success story that is still celebrated today. His biography is very easily found, and there is a fairly recent movie that dramatizes (and sensationalizes) his life and career.
So, the question becomes, what did he sound like? And that is tricky indeed. He was often painted, and very well, so we know what he looked like. He was quite tall; that was demonstrated by a fairly recent disinterment. Male growth in the absence of testosterone tends to exaggerated skeletal development. In his case, this meant height and lung over-development, and, likely, the effecting of some laryngeal structures. People of his day often mentioned his ability to sing very long phrases at considerable volume. Music that was written for him indicates that he had the ability to sing very florid and complex musical lines. Let me try to give some idea, according to my own modest understanding, of what the voice might have sounded like, and why. This is simple and short, and merely suggestive, as I have not the expertise to go on at any length on this highly specialized subject.
We can hear what one castrato sounded like by listening for a moment to the only castrato who was ever (knowingly) recorded, Alessandro Moreschi. He was not a talented singer; in fact, he was a poor singer. But we can at least hear what one known castrato sounded like:
This makes the point fairly clearly that once we dispense with all other matters, it all comes down to artistry, talent and musicianship; exactly the same factors that determine what constitutes a fine singer today. The fact that he was a castrato is essentially irrelevant. This is not the sound or the singing that would inspire one to lay down his or her hard-earned money for a concert ticket. So why was it ever recorded? Well, because he was a castrato. I stress this for one reason only: de-mystification.
There are some modern singers who probably come close to being a natural castrato—although the word "castrato" would be not be appropriate. I speak of those males who because of one endocrinologic disorder or another never produced testosterone. Such a singer, it is said, is the male soprano Radu Marian. In his case, we move to a man who is a gifted soprano; very musical, well educated, and with what I feel safe in calling a lovely voice. This may move us significantly closer to the goal of discovering the "authentic" castrato voice:
Now that, to my way of thinking, is a legitimate voice, and a very beautiful one at that. This is the kind of voice that one would pay to listen to, and people in fact do. It is not based on falsetto. This is Radu Marian's real voice. He normally speaks in the high "female" register. Marian is enjoying a respectable career, and has earned the respect of serious musicians. The beauty of his voice is also spoken of and appreciated. I will go to bat, as it were, for this voice. Of the increasingly larger number of male sopranos and altos singing today, Marian is my own personal favorite. This is a fine voice, very beautiful, and authentically soprano. The last note in "Lascia ch'io pianga" is a soprano B natural, and it is well within his range.
But there is another way to approach trying to imagine an 18th-century castrato voice, and that is through a female singer. It is, after all, largely a "female" sound that we are dealing with here, even if hypothetically. What about an intense, powerful, flexible female voice, essentially soprano, but with a kind of heft that at least suggests, albeit slightly, another kind of almost-male voice? How about Ann Hallenberg? I freely admit that this is not my idea, although I agree with it. It was suggested to me by a gentleman I have come to respect as probably the ultimate authority on this subject. Here she is, in suggestive garb, singing a song that was actually written for Farinelli by his own brother. (It is the first song she sings, "Son qual Nave..." ) Clearly, she is trying to give a "Farinelli impression," evidence that the potential for comparison has occurred both to her and to others. If you close your eyes as you listen, I think you may hear it—I believe I do:
Isn't that something! The fact that she is singing a song written for the great castrato by his own brother, who certainly knew his abilities, gives us an excellent idea of what he was capable of. I can do no more than suggest that there is a significant likelihood of this being reasonably close to the Farinelli sound!
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THE GENTLEMAN WHO OPERATES THIS SITE IS ONE OF THE FOREMOST AUTHORITIES ON THE SUBJECT OF FARINELLI AND CASTRATI IN GENERAL. THANK YOU, Edmund St.Austell